Classical Music of India

An invitation to explore Indian music
as brought to you by Raga-Mala
by past president
Kan Jhass and Sarod player Aashish Khan

Considering the immense popularity gained by Indian classical music during the last few decades, it is most likely that you will have had an opportunity to listen to it at some point. If, however, tonight is your first exposure to Indian classical music, then I hope the following will provide you with a brief introduction and familiarize you with some of the finer points of Indian classical music.

Over a hundred years ago, Indian classical music was mainly confined to the precincts of temples and to the patronage of the palaces of the innumerable rulers who dotted India. During the past hundred years or so, this music has made its presence felt on the concert platform and has captured the attention of appreciative audiences around the world. It has a long, unbroken and constantly evolving tradition which originated in metrical recitation of the Vedas, an ancient scripture. One of the Vedas, the Sama Veda, provided the scale of seven notes in an octave, a precursor to the current development of the concept of RAGA. The Vedas have further established the fact that a great variety of vocal, string, wind, bow and percussion instruments were used in Vedic times. Through the ages, saints and scholars have handed down the complex, melodic and rhythmic system of Indian classical music through the oral tradition, demonstrations, and ancient text. Like the Vedas which are chanted even today after several thousand years, Indian classical music has been handed down mainly from preceptor to disciple. Even after centuries of refinement, Indian classical music remains highly creative because of the important role provided of spontaneous improvisation by the performer.

Over the millennia, Indian music developed as a single system of music; however, during the thirteenth century AD, it split into two distinct systems: the Hindustani music of North India and the Carnatic music of South India. Both styles continued to evolve along different lines but with a common heritage.

Tonight's artists play in the Hindustani style of Indian classical music. This style developed further as a synthesis of Indian music and the traditional melodies of the Sub- Continent. These influences were brought in by the Moghul rulers who ruled most of Northern and Eastern India. During the rule of the great Emperor Akbar, Indian classical music had reached its zenith, mainly due to Mian Tansen, the legendary and historical figure who was one of the nine jewels in Emperor Akbar's court. It was during this era that the music, like an ever flowing river, absorbed many streams of varied cultures to make it richer, more colorful yet retain its pristine purity, beauty and grandeur.

Unlike Western music, where the accent is on harmony, Indian classical music retains its roots in pure melody and rhythm, and the subtle and intricate interplay of these essentials is it essence. Within the framework of the rules governing the Raga and the limitations on the use of particular notes, the performer has complete freedom for the display of imaginative and innovative improvisation and thus of his musical scholarship and skill. In fact, the stature of an artist is determined by his ability to improvise and weave new musical patterns at every step. Ragas express melodic structure. In their numerical ratios they correspond to moods, colors, seasons and hours of the day or night.

Hindustani music begins with the ALAAP. This is a slow invocation in free rhythm, presenting subtleties of the Raga in an expressive and meditative style. The artist begins with the alaap, or first movement, based on the notes of the Raga. Later a more rhythmic style called JOD unfolds into the second movement with many variations; then follows the more rapid rhythmic style or third movement called JHALA which fills out the rhythm with rapid notes. The depth of imagination and the musical creativity of the artist is revealed in the Alaap and Jod. After the Jhala comes the second part which introduces the percussion for the first time. This part is called the GAT. The Gat is based on the rhythm structure called TAAL and is played in slow, medium, or fast tempo in a particular set cycle of beats. For instance, TEENTAAL is a 16 beat cycle divided into 4-4-4-4; or JAPTAAL is a 10 beat cycle divided into 2-3,2-3; RUPAKTAAL is a 7 beat cycle divided into 3-2-2. Like that, there are over 300 variations of TAAL. The main melody is introduced by the instrument while the TABLA (percussion) provides the Taal or rhythm cycle known as THEKA. Against this rhythm the artist improvises imaginative melodic patterns and introduces progressively complex patterns within the rhythmic cycle culminating into the SUM which is the first beat of the TAAL. At this juncture, both instruments reach a climatic enjoyment of the TAAL and the improvisation. Also, the instrumentalist provides the melodic theme for the TABLA player to improvise, and that is how, together, they build up the music towards a gradual climax. The ending is with brilliant climatic passages and rapidly repeated notes filling out the rhythm.

On the stage, the chief performer takes the central position in an arrangement where the percussionist is seated on his right. The Tanpura (drone instrument) players take a slightly off center position behind him.

Enjoy the performance!

"After more than 50 years of playing, I am only now beginning to see the light of my musical path."
— Aashish Khan